Friday, October 30, 2015

More Explicit Claims On Underlying/Implicit Obligations

I will try to clarify a couple of points that seem to have caused much confusion. They are all connected to my Bookkeeping View (see my previous post for an overview of the concept).

1. When I talk about debt relations that are arranged through our banking/monetary system, I don't refer to any bounding, enforceable debt contracts between two pre-defined entities. Through the banking system, one debtor always faces millions of potential creditors, and one creditor always faces millions of potential debtors. A net debtor (i.e. someone with a net debit balance) doesn't need to find a net creditor in order to pay his debt; he only needs to find someone with the ability to credit the debtor's account (by debiting his own account). Likewise, a net creditor doesn't need to find a net debtor to get what is due to him personally; everyone accepts the credit balance (in bank ledger) which he has to offer in exchange for goods and services. I don't talk about a debt which would be always defined and enforced by law (as in a contract between two parties), but a debt that is slightly closer to reciprocity, "give and take", debt incurred and paid on the market. All this works, when it works, through transactions between free individuals, and the transactions are based on mutual consent. But the sums (prices) owed are clearly expressed in the abstract unit of account and law can be used to enforce these debts, so I'm not describing some abstract "debt" (eg, to one's country, forefathers or humanity in general). Schumpeter used the expression social bookkeeping system when he talked about something very similar to what I'm describing.

2. At macroeconomic/aggregate level, debt is paid only when a net debtor sells something to a net creditor. If he, instead, sells to someone who wasn't a net creditor before the transaction, then aggregate debt obviously stays the same (increase in buyer's debt matches decrease in seller's debt). Likewise, new debt is created when a buyer becomes a net debtor, or increases his net debit balance. If he bought from someone who was a net debtor himself, then aggregate debt obviously doesn't increase (as the seller's debt is reduced). But if the seller is not just paying his debt (i.e. he either is a net creditor or at least ends up with a net credit balance after the transaction), aggregate debt increases as a consequence of the transaction. Note: It is this macroeconomic viewpoint which is perhaps most important to me, because the pressing question (to me, the economic question of our generation) I've been trying to find an answer to is basically this: "What the hell is going on with the increasing private and public indebtness worldwide?"

3. I do not say that a commercial bank, or the central bank, or the government owes something. This is a point that seems to escape people, although I thought I had already clearly stated it. What I say --when I adopt the Bookkeeping View -- is that the "agents" with a net debit balance in a bank ledger owe something. I also say that if the government has a net debit balance (like it always seems to have, in form of cumulative deficits and current spending), then it is mostly the duty of taxpayers (there are other fees than taxes, though) to credit that balance (i.e. to pay the debt); in other words, government's debit balance is an indirect obligation of private agents. (This seems to clash with some people's view of the government; a view which suggests that the government is something separate from the people. I, instead, view the government as an entity formed by citizens, (trans)acting and signing contracts on behalf of citizens.)

4. Some have told me that a debit balance alone doesn't imply any real debt (obligation). They seem to back this statement by saying that the central bank/government doesn't owe anything (and I agree; see point 3 above). But by describing the Bookkeeping View, I try to substantiate my claim that a debit balance is always ultimately connected to a debt (perhaps not in a way explicit enough to some, but isn't it those previously hidden, underlying "rules" a scientist should try to discover?). I apply the Bookkeeping View to the real economy and study how these debit (and credit) balances behave. And by doing this I derive empirical evidence which suggest that all these debit balances actually behave as if they were part of a bookkeeping system, the purpose of which is to track real debt relations. It seems quite obvious to me that had  there been a clear, explicit accounting link -- even defined by law, as some seem to demand -- between government spending (credit) and tax obligations (debit), then there would be absolutely nothing for a scientist to try to discover here.

5. Finally, Naryana Kocherlakota in Money Is Memory (1996) -- my understanding is that he builds his ideas in the article mainly on J. Ostroy's The Informational Efficiency of Monetary Exchange, 1973 -- has suggested something that seems like a clear step towards the Bookkeeping View. He writes (somewhat "wonkish", as Krugman likes to warn; I underline and comment in brackets):

Within the class of environments under consideration, I show that adding money may expand the set of incentive-feasible allocations. However, I also show that the set of incentive-feasible allocations can be expanded by adding collective memory [a "social bookkeeping system"] to these environments. Here, memory is defined to be a historical record which reports to any agent at any date the full histories of all agents with whom he has had direct or indirect contact in the past. The main result of the paper is that in all of these environments, the set of incentive-feasible allocations generated by adding memory contains the set of incentive-feasible allocations generated by adding money. In this sense, in all of these environments, money is merely a primitive form of memory.
There is a simple reasoning behind the main proposition. John and Mary meet. John has apples and wants bananas. Mary wants apples but doesn't have bananas. In monetary economies, this problem is solved by Mary's giving John money in exchange for apples. John then uses the money to buy bananas from Paul; if John doesn't give the apples to Mary, John doesn't get the money and can't buy the bananas from Paul.
But of course the money itself is intrinsically useless. In terms of the reallocation of intrinsically valuable resources, we can think about the situation as being one in which John is considering making Mary a gift [see my point 1 above: this is reciprocity] of apples. If he makes the gift, Paul will give him bananas in the future; if he doesn't make the gift, Paul won't give him the bananas [point 1: "give and take"]. The money that John receives from Mary is merely a way of letting Paul know that John has fulfilled his societal obligations and given Mary her apples [Here the Bookkeeping View disagrees strongly: John possessing "money" obviously doesn't prove that he has fulfilled his "societal obligations"; he could be in debt. In other words, the possession of "money" doesn't reveal anything about the holder's trading history].
Thus, if we account for the fact that money itself is useless, monetary allocations are merely large interlocking networks of gifts [sounds like a "pure credit economy", or a "complicated and perfected system of barter"]. The point of this paper is to show that these same reallocations of resources are feasible if agents knew the past history of all actions: Paul could react to different histories of gifts on John's part in the same way that he reacts to John's having different amounts of money. It follows that any function performed by money can be provided by an ability to access the pasts of one's trading partners, their trading partners, and so on [our banking system makes, or at least should make, it unnecessary for individuals to access each others' trading histories; but the system itself tracks our historical, cumulative debits and credits, incurred and earned, respectively, by trading with others].

I have mentioned this before: I think that A. Mitchell-Innes's view on "money" was very much in line with mine, but he obviously didn't put it in explicit enough terms (see Innes here and here). The future will show if I manage to do better.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

"Helicopter Money" As I See It

I have just finished reading Adair Turner's great new book"Between Debt and the Devil: Money, Credit, and Fixing Global Finance". I intend to write a review on it later, but right now I want to give some food for thought for those who are interested in what is arguably the most controversial part of Mr Turner's overall message (a message I mostly agree with), namely, "Overt Monetary Finance" (OMF), or "Helicopter Money".

I'm still working on getting a firm grip of this concept, which in no way is as clear as it might sound to someone who hasn't really tried to study it (this, of course, applies to everything in science, or life in general). "Money printing" was in no way a clear concept even in Weimar Germany, and the real-time experience seems to have been in stark contrast to the simplified image of "pure monetary madness" created by writers afterwards.* To get an idea of the problems around the OMF concept, I suggest you read William White's take on it at Project Syndicate (don't miss Adair Turner's reply to Mr White which he has posted as a comment on that article).

Being aware of the danger of over-simplification, I nevertheless present, in simple terms, my take on OMF below. My aim is to provide a glimpse of the substance ("the wood") as I see it, without letting the form ("the trees") get into the way. There are many technical ways to achieve more or less the same outcome. My biased opinion is that behind the apparent simplicity of my description lies a fairly nuanced understanding of the subject, thanks to Messieurs Turner and White, and various other writers dead and living.


"Just Like Money But Not Money"

a play by P. Golovatscheff

Act 1: Mrs Government meets Mr Supplier-Taxpayer

When Mrs Government decides to spend -- often to acquire goods or services to be used for the 'common good' of the nation -- she hands over IOUs (usually, but not necessarily, what we call "money") to the one who sells goods or services to her. This someone is often a government employee or, more generally, a government supplier. We can imagine how Mrs Government says to the supplier who has just provided her with goods or services:

"Mr Supplier, please take these IOUs and trust that they will be redeemed by taxpayers, sooner or later."

In other words, Mr Supplier should expect to be able to buy goods or services from other taxpayers using these IOUs, because a tax obligation makes it necessary for taxpayers to acquire -- really, redeem -- these IOUs. If others share his expectation, then the IOUs become generally accepted. As we see, the IOUs are not Mrs Government's own IOUs; she issues them on behalf of the taxpayers. This is comparable to a husband shopping with a credit card connected to his wife's account, when the wife is the sole income-earner in the family. It is she who will redeem (for instance, by selling labor) the IOUs her husband issues -- with the common good of the family in his mind, no doubt -- on her behalf.

This is the underlying logic I see behind government spending and taxation. This is, also, my reading of Alfred Mitchell-Innes and the kind of chartalism he seemed to endorse (here, and one year later here). In his words: "Whenever a tax is imposed, each taxpayer becomes responsible for the redemption of a small part of the debt which the government has contracted by its issues of money, whether coins, certificates, notes, drafts on the treasury, or by whatever name this money is called. He has to acquire his portion of the debt from some holder of a coin or certificate or other form of government money". I might be wrong, but I feel that Innes has not been fully understood even by people who often cite him (I'm thinking about some MMT writers, among others).

Act 2: Impeccably honest Mrs Government fails to fool Mr Supplier-Taxpayer

What the advocates of "helicopter money" are effectively suggesting is that Mrs Government should spend like she is used to spend, and actually spend a bit more, but this time she should sent a letter to Mr Supplier, saying:

Dear Mr Supplier / My Beloved Taxpayer:

Take these IOUs but understand that they are not really IOUs at all. My firm intention is not to bother taxpayers, You included, by placing any burden whatsoever related to this spending on Your shoulders. Not even by issuing bonds later to cover the deficit I am incurring through this spending, because the bonds would burden You with unnecessary interest charges. 
Having said this, I can assure You that personally You have nothing to worry about. These IOUs are fungible. By this I don't mean that they will be consumed by some eukaryotic organism, but that no one can tell them from the IOUs that are matched with a real tax burden. (On a more personal note: I cannot express in words how sorry I am for this real burden I impose on You, but that is unfortunately the only way my spending can be financed in any meaningful sense of the word -- rest assured that I will never forget Your sacrifice.) The fungibility of these IOUs will ensure that you are able to give them up in exchange for goods or services as before, just like they were real IOUs.
But please consider this friendly advice: If You take history as your guide, You might want to get rid of these IOUs rather quickly. This is because my honesty -- I scarcely need to remind You that I am a lady of high ethical standards, and, additionally, transparency seems to be in fashion -- around this matter should, if not in practice then at least in theory, cause any rational human being to expect higher inflation sooner or later. And any economist can tell you that if a sufficient amount of people expect higher inflation later, the inflation will actually arrive much sooner than expected.
Always at Your service, Truly Yours,
 Mrs Government

---------------------------- THE PLAY ENDS -------------------------------

I want to end this post my making two broad statements.

First, we cannot say that OMF can be used to "finance" certain productive investments by the government. Any attempt at "ear-marking" would be just an exercise in illusion. OMF will be an inseparable part of the overall government budget, and will thus "finance" in equal proportion all the consumption and investment that may arise from government spending -- also the wasteful activities. We are all imperfect, and the government doesn't make an exception here. Further, we should expect that any easily identifiable productive investments are already made by the government. In any case, our ability to undertake them should have nothing directly to do with OMF.

Secondly, and more importantly, it makes very little sense to say that OMF can finance anything at all. The whole point with OMF is that part of government spending will never be financed in any meaningful sense of the word. That a person of a very high intellectual capability can claim that OMF (yes, the F stands for 'Finance') can be used to finance government spending shows mainly how horrible is the state of our economic vocabulary. "Overt Monetary Fooling/Faking/Failure" would, to me, sound more descriptive. Unfortunately, sloppy language often corresponds with sloppy thinking, and even Mr Turner doesn't seem to be able to fully escape this trap.

Despite my harsh criticism above (which no doubt might lead to me being exposed as a fool later), I honestly believe that in Adair Turner we have one of the brightest minds when it comes to understanding debt. He has been clear about how OMF is potentially a very dangerous tool, and he has on many occasions stressed that his (immediate) goal is to create debate around it; to break the silence around this subject often considered a taboo.

I fully agree with Mr Turner. I would say that this kind of debate is not only welcome, but that it can lead to improved understanding of the problems caused by the global debt overhang.

It is my intention to engage in this debate with this piece.

* In order to understand how things appeared to various spectators, and actors, "in real time" during the Weimar experiment, one could do much worse than by reading historian Adam Fergusson's study, "When Money Dies" (1975), on the Weimar hyperinflation.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Pure Credit Economy, or "The Bookkeeping View"

I don't subscribe to any particular school of economic thought, because I haven't found any of the frameworks these offer compelling enough when it comes to explaining debt and "money". For instance, Post-Keynesians/Circuitists/MMT get many of the technicalities around "money" right, but to me, the really big picture is missing. Sometimes it seems that the more we focus on "money", the harder it is to establish the needed connections to the real economy.

Thus, I have been forced to build an understanding of my own around these matters. It was -- or rather, is -- quite a struggle, as anyone who has been into monetary economics must surely understand. How I ended up where I am in my thinking today is an interesting story in itself, but I'll leave that for later. What eventually emerged from this struggle is a view, or perspective, more or less consistent with Hyman Minsky's view which characterized the economy as a system of interlocking balance sheets (Thanks, Michael Pettis!), with the difference that what I suggest is both more concrete and, arguably, more radical.

We could call it the "Bookkeeping View". Simply put, I view our current economy as a "pure credit economy": something Wicksell, Hawtrey and Schumpeter, even Jevons and Hicks, imagined and perhaps thought possible, but nevertheless considered non-existent as long as "fiat money" existed. The Bookkeeping View defines even this "fiat money" in bookkeeping terms, and thus effectively gets rid of it. What we are used to call "money" (the non-abstract part of it) is just a credit balance in a ledger. For instance, physical cash refers directly to, or acts as, a credit balance in the central bank ledger. This view describes the entire monetary system simply in terms of credit and debit balances, and changes in these balances. These changes (as do these balances to start with) arise from credit and debit entries that are made on various accounts, and in various ledgers, in course of buying and selling. *

According to this view, banks (the central bank included) and other financial institutions can be considered "bookkeepers". They don't record their own claims and liabilities (Schumpeter, too, has suggested that deposit holders should not be viewed as creditors of the bank), but the claims and liabilities -- credit/debt relationships -- of the entities found on both sides of the bank balance sheet.

We are all used to think that what these credit balances refer to, i.e. what it is that is owed, is “money” (ultimately “cash”). But the Bookkeeping View challenges this. According to this view, these credit balances are just denominated in an abstract unit of account (numéraire; e.g, USD). In other words, they refer to a price. †

A price of what? A price of whatever is bought and sold. It might go like this: A creditor (owner of a credit balance, often in a bank ledger) goes out on the market, looking for goods or services, and chances upon a debtor (owner of a debit balance). The debtor is selling and the creditor is buying. (Of course, it is likely that they don’t know each other’s balance, nor should they know.) Assuming the creditor is interested in buying what the debtor is selling, they agree on a price. A transaction is made. And it is this transaction that is recorded in our monetary bookkeeping system. By selling, the debtor has redeemed (part of) his debt (to the amount of the agreed price), and that will be reflected in his reduced debit balance in the bank ledger (assuming we are dealing through a bank; it is easiest to think of this in terms of overdrafts instead of "traditional loans", because it gives a more accurate picture of the reality. What is essential is the net balance, which overdraft gives us automatically.). Similarly, the creditor’s credit balance is reduced. Now — only ex post — we know what was it that was owed. It was the object of the transaction, often a good or a service. And only ex post can we establish a direct link between a single creditor and a single debtor, brought together most likely by the “invisible hand” (or, market forces).

Think of this as an alternative way to view the world. One cannot prove this view wrong by just positing that "money as a means of payment" must exist because, well, we are used to agree that it exists. Naturally, adopting this view makes great demands on our cognitive flexibility -- it's been a tough journey for me: the view itself is simple, but getting rid of "money" is mentally hard --, but the rewards in the form of new insights on the most pressing problems in economics, and the economy, are, I believe, well worth the effort.

UPDATE, Oct 20, 2015:

Here is a quote from R.G. Hawtrey ("Currency and Credit", 1919) which sums up quite well how I view our contemporary economy (for Hawtrey, this was an imaginary economy):
Suppose then that society is civilised, and that money does not exist. Goods are brought to market and exchanged. But even though there is no medium of exchange, it does not follow that they must be bartered directly for one another. If a man sells a ton of coals to another, this will create a debt from the buyer to the seller. But the buyer will have been himself a seller to someone else, and the seller will have been himself also a buyer. The dealers in the market can meet together and set off their debts and credits. But for this purpose the debts and credits, which represent the purchase and sale of a variety of goods, must be reduced to some common measure. In fact a unit for the measurement of debts is indispensable. .... Where there is no money, the unit must be something wholly conventional and arbitrary. This is what is technically called a ''money of account". ... This is an approximation to the state of affairs which we are assuming. But however conventional and arbitrary the unit may be, once it is established as the basis of the debts and prices and values of a market, it is bound to assume a certain continuity. 
Each dealer in the market calculates his own command of wealth in the same unit; it affords the basis for his valuation both of what he wants to buy and of what he wants to sell, and he looks for only such divergence from the previous prices as variations of supply and demand will justify. The total effective demand for commodities in the market is limited to the number of units of the money of account that dealers are prepared to offer, and the number that they are prepared to offer over any period of time is limited according to the number that they hope to receive. Therefore, arbitrary as the unit is, capricious variations in its purchasing power will not occur.

* I believe I'm very close to the (Steuart-)Mcleod-Innes "Credit Theory" line of thinking, and the way I interpret for instance Alfred Mitchell-Innes is such that he seems to be in agreement with me. Some contemporary writers, for instance Richard Werner, seem to follow this line of thinking, but the propositions they present differ from mine to such an extent that we seem to draw different conclusions.

† For an overview of the “abstract unit of account” concept, see, for instance, "Is Numérairology the Future of Monetary Economics?" (2007) by Willem Buiter. But note that what Buiter says doesn’t correspond with the “Bookkeeping View”. In his thinking, currencies like USD and GBP are “money” which serves as a “means of payment”, in addition to its function as numéraire (abstract unit of account). The "Bookkeeping View" position is that USD and GBP are only abstract units of account that are used to express the nominal value of a credit balance. These credit balances refer to prices denominated in USD or GBP.